President Obama’s apparently precipitous decline in popularity since taking office naturally distresses his fellow Democrats a great deal, while giving complacent comfort to their Republican rivals. Historically speaking, however, Obama’s supporters can take some ironic comfort in the fact that his depressing poll numbers at this stage of his first term virtually mirror those of the man commonly esteemed as the conservative messiah: Ronald Reagan.
Both iconic figures were swept into high office on a wave of optimism in the midst of an economic downturn, which adversely affected their initially high approval ratings, from the high 60s to below 50% in a few months of bad news on the domestic front. “It is absolutely uncanny,” said Gary Langer, ABC’s polling director, who has been tracking the remarkable similarities since Obama took office in February 2009.
Despite this promising precedent, at the moment the downward trend make political circumstances look comparatively dire, not inspirational, at least for Democrats. In one recent survey, President Obama was polled nearly on a par with his unpopular predecessor, George W. Bush.
“I couldn’t help thinking that if Obama compares himself to any other president, it seems to me to be Ronald Reagan,” noted former Clinton aide and current ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos before this year’s State of the Union address. “Despite ultimately having an enormously popular presidency, at this point in his presidency — just one year in — Reagan had lower approval ratings than Obama does now and faced an array of economic challenges.”
The comparison between Obama, once hailed as the Savior of the Left, and Reagan, still regarded as the Spirit of the Right, might seem desperate and far-fetched, but dispirited Democrats are going to grab at any straw polls in their favor in order to ensure their leader’s hard won election, and agenda, aren’t usurped and reversed by a polarized electorate swinging in reverse, i.e. rightward, by 2012. Despite this president’s many historical accomplishments in a relatively short amount of time, against united opposition from both the rival party and within his own ranks, the public at large seems skeptical about the merits of his top achievements, from health care reform to legislation regulating the very financial system that many blame for an unprecedented recession. The only numbers that will matter more than his poll readings will be the unemployment rate. Once again, to echo and paraphrase an earlier Democratic campaign-rallying cry, it will be the economy, stupid.